Finding a Hero In Our Family Tree - Captain Michael O'Sullivan

Friday, May 21, 2021

 Michael M. O’Sullivan was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1808.  He married Catherine Howe in St. John’s Church in Limerick in 1829.  Michael and Catherine raised 6 children, Honora, Elizabeth, Michael, James, Catherine and Mary. He is my husband's third great grandfather.  Michael immigrated from Ireland and settled in Albany, NY.  This is his story.

Michael’s story came to us through a variety of sources, including his own words in letters now safely preserved at the NYS Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, from John's mutual ancestors’ family trees on, and from various documents found on the web.  When I began my quest to explore our family ancestry, I had no idea what tales I’d find, but Michael’s story is beyond any expectation I hoped to uncover.  Let me tell you what I can about the multi-faceted Michael O’Sullivan. Photo of Michael courtesy of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY.

In September 1870 when he was 62, Michael wrote a letter to Reverend Brother John Austin Grace of the Irish Christian Brothers School in Dublin, Ireland.  Michael O’Sullivan was a pupil of Brother Grace and his letter to Brother Grace is now preserved in the Brothers’ archives in Dublin.  Michael writes, “I am almost ashamed to write to you, after my having delayed so long to answer your letter.  The delay was occasioned partly by the death of my son and one of my daughters – the former died a year ago, leaving a wife and seven children, the latter died two years ago, within a year after her marriage.  My health is very much impaired – not by natural sickness but by the consequence of wounds I received during the late Civil War in this country.”

Michael goes on to tell that after his father’s death, he left Limerick in 1823 and went to Dublin.  I bound myself apprentice to a mason, was at the finishing of the Revenue Docks in rere of the Custom House stores; worked in Belfast, Derry, Monagham, Tyrone, Donegal, Westmeath, Galway, Tipperary and Cork.  I prepared the first stone of the Donnybrook Bridge, attended the Marquis of Anglesea in laying it."  He writes, “I was a good stonecutter then, working at both trades as circumstances required.  I was selected by the late Very Rev. James O’Rafferty as Teacher of Tullamore National School, and was a member of the first class of teachers trained in Merrion St. Model School.  I conducted the school until 1840 when a combination, headed by some of the local Orange Magistracy, forced me to fly from Ireland.  My political opinions were at variance with those of the magistrates, and I freely exposed their doings in the Pilot, Athlone Sentinel and Carlow Morning Post.  Although never belonging to a secret society, I took every opportunity to shew my hostility to the petty tyrants who misgovern the country.”

 Michael and his family arrived in the United States in the early 1840's. He received his naturalization papers in 1855. For many years, Michael was a teacher in the different parochial schools in Albany – St. Mary’s, St. Joseph's, and St. John’s which some sources say he established.  One record also lists his occupation as catholic bookstore owner.   On October 7, 1859, a newspaper report states, “He  (Michael O’Sullivan) was brutally attacked by 3 assailants while leaving the Cathedral in Albany (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception), with a daughter and her female friend between 11-12:00pm.  The newspaper reporter wrote, “the attackers should be imprisoned for life.”

Referring back to his letter to Brother Grace, Michael says, “Since I arrived in the US, I managed to obtain a respectable livelihood for my family until the war broke out in 1861.  I raised a company of 86 men, all Irish Catholics, without soliciting any of them to enlist, and without the aid of even one glass of intoxicating liquor, as I was then, and now and since 1834 a “Teetotaler” of the most rigid school.  My company being picked men, above common intelligence, moral and, I may say, religious, they were selected as vacancies occurred by the casualties of war, to be Lieutenants and Captains, and I had the pleasure of leaving the Regiment at the close of 1863, to see my place of Major filled by one of my recruits, John Dwyer from Co. Kilkenny. I was in 23 general engagements and skirmishes, the severest of which were “Fair Oaks, Antietam, the “Seven Day’s Fight (in which we fought 8 times in 7 days), Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, Gettysburg, Yorktown, etc.  I was shot thro’ the left knee which partially disables me, and after three months in hospital resumed my command, promoted Major and was invalided on a pension of $20 a month.  Since coming home, I have been employed in some of the State and US Departments, although frequently and seriously ill from the effects of my wounds.  Yet not withstanding all my trials, I am still robust and although 64 years old, my appearance is that of a man about 50, not even having gray hair.  The 63rd Regiment in which I served, formed part of the celebrated Irish Brigade,  commanded by the gallant soldier, the late Major General Thomas Francis Meagher, one of whose favorite officers I had the pleasure to be.  Our brigade had three Catholic Chaplains, Mass every morning, sometimes on the battlefield, surrounded by the dead and wounded; Rosary every evening and Confessions at any time, day or night.”  He goes on to say, “I am at present Clerk in the US Marshal’s Office and I go home to my little family every two weeks, to Albany, 150 miles up the Hudson River, spend Sunday at home and return to the office Monday morning.  I hope soon to write to you again when I will acquaint you with the state of Catholicity in the neighborhood of Albany at present, in contrast with 30 years ago - making Albany a centre, with a radius of 30 miles - and you will be astonished and thank God at the result."

In addition to being fortunate enough to have this letter from Michael, several of Captain O’Sullivan’s letters home from war appeared in local newspapers.  Without the experience of having served in battle, their vivid descriptions, and the stark reality of war – a war a relative participated in – bring light to a world most of us are fortunate not to have experienced.  Here’s some excerpts from some of those letters:

Captain Michael O’Sullivan of Company F, 63rd New York, in one of the few surviving accounts of the battle, described it to a New York newspaper:. “We have fought the enemy, and our company has either been killed or wounded, with the exception of eleven.”

Captain Michael O'Sullivan, Of Co. F, 63d Regiment N. Y. S. Y., who was wounded slightly in the leg, in the battle of Antietam, wrote home to Albany from the hospital at Keedysville on the same day, thus:

" We have fought the enemy, and our brigade has been cut to pieces! Every man of my company has either been killed or wounded, with the exception of eleven. I received a rifle shot in the left thigh, going completely through-fortunately without touching the bone. Poor Lieut. Henry McConnell was shot through the brain, and never spoke again. P. W. Lyndon, my First Lieutenant, was shot through the heart. Only one Captain (O'Neil) remained on the field. James De Lacey is killed-as also Tim. Kearns. Lieut. Sullivan, Terry, Murray, and the two Mahers, are all safe. Major Bentley is slightly wounded. Sergeant John Dwyer is wounded in the head. Sergeant Major Quick and M. McDonald are not touched. All the line officers of our regiment are either killed or wounded, save one Captain and five Lieutenants.

" * * * At this moment (10 A. M.) my wound is not yet dressed; but it gives me only slight inconvenience. I expect to leave here for Frederick to night, and from thence, probably, home for a season. Those mentioned above are the only Albanians of whom I have positive knowledge at this writing; but I will endeavor to account for them all."


MARYLAND, Sunday, Sept. 21.
I am permitted once more to write to you. My wound is not as serious as I had anticipated, having bled a good deal, and at the time it looked very ugly, the bullet hiving gone through and through the fleshy part of my thigh, a few inches above the knee. It gives me no pain worth talking of, although the only dressing it has got, up to this time, is cold water, which I keep constantly pouring on it, day and night. This is in itself a great inconvenience, as I have not slept an hour at any one time until last night, when I got four hour's sleep, and awoke very much refreshed. I can scarcely move off my back, but I can very well afford to bear my situation with more than patience, when I look around the vast field and see poor fellows who are suffering from wounds, many of which are mortal- some shot through the head, back, groin, sides, shoulders and abdomen; others with lacerated limbs, and many, whilst undergoing amputation of legs and arms, shrieking and moaning in such manner as would penetrate the most obdurate heart.
I am laid near the Surgeon's quarters, and within one hundred yards and in full view of our Brigade burying-ground, in which fatigue parties are constantly employed burying the dead "uncoffined and unsung." Two groups of graves amongst the rest command my attention, and produce most melancholy thoughts in my mind. One, containing five mounds, rudely fenced in, in which are buried everybody's friend Lieut. McConnell, De Lacey, Kearns and Robbins, of Company K (Albany Co.); the other, containing the graves of Lieut. Lydon, Sergeant Gillespie, Corporals Kerrigan and Doherty, and private Madden, of my company (K)-upon whom, and all the other poor fellows, may the Lord have mercy!

Extracts from an Albany Officer's Private Letter.
CAMP CALIFORNIA, Va., Jan. 18, 1862.
“Oh! how solemn it is to hear the death dirge reverberating from hill to hill, in this wild country, and still more melancholy it is to see the mortal remains of a poor soldier, far from home and friends, placed in a hole (scarcely a grave), on which, it may be, "the foeman and the stranger" may tread in some future time. What a mockery is life, when it ends thus! The other day I was at the funeral of a fine young man who was accidentally shot by his own brother. To witness the distraction of the poor father and brother over the grave, was more than I could bear, and I was glad to escape from their wailings, although they mourned the lost one in German. May God give us the melancholy happiness to die among our friends, unless our lives are sacrificed in the path of duty on the field of battle!”

Michael O’Sullivan lived a rich life, filled with family he loved, fighting for a cause he believed in.  He went to war with his son at the age of 53.  He lied and gave his age as 45 when he enlisted.  A book written in 1899 by Myron A. Cooney about prominent people buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, NY, features a full-page story about Michael. 

 Mr. Cooney writes of Michael: “Even now in this city there are many middle-aged men who refer with pleasure and gratitude to his care of them in youth, his kindly counsel, and watchful guidance.  In 1865, July 4th, there was a presentation of NYS flags to Gov. Fenton and on this occasion, Captain O’Sullivan with his colonel, RC Bentley, represented the 63rd Regt, NYSV.  On account of his educational work in this city and his natural ability, he was connected with all the literary societies in this city from their inception, also with that of St. Vincent de Paul. St. John’s Institute presented him with a sword and revolver as a token of remembrance and esteem when he left for the seat of war.”
The article below is from 'Antietam on the Web':

After the war, Michael was a clerk of Criminal Statistics for eight years, until his death on February 21, 1873. His daughter, Catherine (Kate) died on September 8, 1856 at 21 years of age.  She and a younger sister were among the first members of the Cathedral choir.  At her funeral, Bishop McClosky (later Cardinal), preached, she being the only lay person for whom he did this service.  His daughter Elizabeth was named Executrix of his will.  He left her and his wife $20,000 (the equivalent of $400,000 today) to carry on his business.  Below is Catherine's tombstone in the St. Agnes Cemetery.

I am grateful for the work Michael’s second great grandson did to collect much of this story.  It is unlikely I, alone, would have been able to piece so many fabrics of Michael’s story together.  Thanks to Walter, John has a vivid picture of his 3rd great grandfather and the amazing life he led, giving so much of himself to others.  
If you've read this far, you may be thinking Captain O'Sullivan wasn't really a hero compared to so many heroes of today, and perhaps that's true.  I believe each of us has the ability to be a hero in some shape or form, that we have the ability to change lives for the better, to move people, to make the world a better place, not just in a big, showy way.  For us, finding an ancestor of John's that did all those things was a thrill and someone John is proud to call his Great, great, great Grandfather.  Isn't it time you began to search for the heroes in your family tree?
Post Script:  After discovering this family hero, John and I were inspired to fund some repair work to bring the O'Sullivan gravesite back to its original state.  Another of Michael O'Sullivan's ancestor, his second great grandson, Walt Kahnle, wanted to take part in the restoration and contributed to the project.  Michael's daughter Elizabeth's stone had a new base poured and her monument is not standing sturdily, as is Catherine's.  Her stone was also given a new base and then cleaned and the cross on top repaired.  His daughter Mary's monument was also given a new base and the cross itself was repaired and cleaned.  Now the whole family plot is sitting on the hill, sparkling and standing out from many locations in the cemetery.  To read more about St. Agnes cemetery, check out my post...

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